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DON’T CALL THEM DROPOUTS: New Report Explores Why Students Leave High School Before Graduation and What Encourages Them to Re-Engage

There is no single reason or factor that drives students to leave school without a high school diploma, nor is there a uniform profile of students who fail to graduate on time. Instead, students who drop out are likely dealing with a variety of risk factors while living in toxic home, school, and/or neighborhood environments. Those are two of the key takeaways from Don’t Call Them Dropouts: Understanding the Experiences of Young People Who Leave High School Before Graduation, a new report from America’s Promise Alliance based on in-depth interviews with more than 200 high school dropouts and a survey of more than 2,000 young adults ages 18–25 who did not complete high school on time.

“Over and over we heard from young people who wanted to stay in school, but multiple life events stood in their way of simply going to school and being able to concentrate on learning,” said Jonathan Zaff, executive director of the America’s Promise Alliance Center for Promise at Tufts University, which conducted the research. “Gradually, they became overwhelmed. Perhaps most heart-breaking, they tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to find adults who could help them.”

The report groups the twenty-five reasons individuals most frequently gave for leaving school without a diploma into four cross-cutting themes: (1) the effect of adverse health events on school completion; (2) the impact of violence on young people’s mental health; (3) the influence of specific parent characteristics on youth well-being; and (4) whether young people perceive school as responsive and relevant to their day-to-day concerns.

“The reasons [individuals] cite for dropping out are the breaking point, the end of the story rather than the whole story,” the report notes.

According to the report, nongraduates spoke of encountering “multiple prevalent stressors” in their path to graduation, including witnessing or being victimized by violence, living in unsafe neighborhoods, experiencing unstable home lives or homelessness, taking responsibility for earning money to meet basic needs, or becoming caregivers for parents or siblings at a young age. While facing these challenges, young people sought connections wherever they could find them. Sometimes those connections helped students persist in school. In toxic environments, however, young people often chose family caregiving, gang affiliation, or teen parenting over school attendance.

“Young people sought connection where it was offered; and from that connectedness both positive and negative decisions could emerge,” the report notes.

Parents were especially influential—both positively and negatively—in a young person’s decision-making process. According to the report, young people whose parent said he or she was proud of a child were 28 percent less likely to stop going to school. On the other hand, young people with a parent in jail were 79 percent more likely to leave school while students who were abused by a parent were 45 percent more likely to leave school.

One final theme that emerged in the report is resiliency—a word not typically associated with dropouts. Repeatedly, however, the report identifies individuals facing long odds who are moving forward as young, often single parents, or key breadwinners for their families. In many cases, these individuals are focused on day-to-day activities that do not typically include going back to school.

To help individuals restart their education, the report mentions integrated student services and comprehensive re-engagement programs that recognize the various factors that cause students to leave school. The report offers several recommendations for reducing the dropout rate and supporting at-risk youth, including ensuring that the voices of young people who have left school are include in discussions about policies, programs, and community activities; creating early-warning systems beyond the school building for young people who are affected by risk factors; and placing young people in central roles in designing and implementing solutions that will work with their peers.

The report is filled with quotes and personal stories from individuals who left school, some of which are included in the video below.

The report also contains a trove of interesting data points about students who left school:

  • Individuals who said they had a teacher who cared about them were 45 percent less likely to leave school.
  • Participating in afterschool activities, and thus having the support of youth development workers, was related to a 67 percent lower likelihood of leaving school.
  • Young people affected by homelessness were 87 percent more likely to leave school than those with a more stable place to live.

The complete report is available at

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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.